Why an evolutionary response that helped us survive is now compromising our health
Have you ever noticed that before a big exam or visit from the in-laws your nose starts to run, your head starts to ache and you begin to fall ‘under the weather’? This is not a coincidence or bad timing, but rather a manifestation of the intricate relationship between stress levels and health.
This relationship is based on an evolutionary response that is called the fight or flight response. This adrenaline-based response occurs automatically when we perceive danger, and was actually very useful back when we were hunting and gathering our food. We would see a threat (or target, depending on how to interpret it) such as a lion and our bodies would respond by elevating heart rate and breathing, dilating the pupils, narrowing our focus and shunting blood away from our extremities (so we won’t bleed to death if our hands get cut). This response was preparation for what would happen next: we would either fight the lion, or run away from it (flight).
The problem is that these days we don’t face similar dangers on a daily basis, yet we still have this evolutionary response hard-wired in us. During the fight or flight response, our body puts functions such as digestion and immunity on hold since they are not necessary for fighting off an external threat. Furthermore, this response is activated by both the nervous system and the hormonal system so that hours after the perceived threat is gone, stress hormones linger in our bodies. So now when we perceive things such as public speaking, school, work or family as something scary, we have an exaggerated and lingering stress response and a greater susceptibility to infection and sickness. This is why you get a dry mouth and cold hands when you have to make a major presentation, or find yourself getting sick during important (yet stressful) life events.
Something as simple as going for a routine check-up with your doctor can set the fight or flight response in motion. Many people have “white-coat syndrome” where they will have a normal blood pressure on the way to and from the doctor’s office, but when they go inside their blood pressure skyrockets. Fear of bad news, anxiety of getting a needle or removing clothing for a check-up are all very real things that can trigger an intense bodily response.
Now imagine if you were always on edge and just couldn’t relax. Your blood pressure would be high all the time, your heart would be working overtime, your digestive system would not be able to properly consume the nutrients your body needs, and you would be taking a lot of sick days! This is a formula for disaster and can put a serious damper on your well-being.
So try to indulge in at least one thing each day that is going to make you happy, whether it’s reading your favorite novel, enjoying your favorite latte or taking a nap in your favorite pyjamas. Feel free to take a chill pill once in a while!